Charlatan and jockey Mike Smith win the Grade I, $300,000 Malibu Stakes, Saturday, December 26, 2020 at Santa Anita Park, Arcadia CA. © BENOIT PHOTO

by Danny Brewer

For those that wondered just how good the lightly raced Charlatan is, they got their answer in the grade 1 Malibu Stakes on December 26.

A seven furlong dash over the Santa Anita dirt, the Malibu has long been a year end target for top three-year olds. This year has been a bit different in many ways, but a race that was first run in 1952 was still in the cross hairs for some top sophomores.

Unraced at two, Charlatan was a serious Kentucky Derby contender earlier in the year until injury put him on the shelf. Brilliantly fast and under the care of hall of fame conditioner Bob Baffert, this son of Speightstown was coming in off basically an eight month layoff. After crossing the wire first in one of the divisions of the Arkansas Derby on May 2 in his third career start, this grandson of Quiet American suffered an injury in training. Later he was stripped of that win due to a medication violation.

The layoff, the injury, and the violation caused question marks to fly around the Baffert barn as this head-strong colt prepared for another run at grade 1 glory. Stepping into the starting gates as well would be another speed merchant in the unbeaten Nashville. Fresh off a track record run at Keeneland on the Breeders Cup undercard, this Steve Asmussen trainee was lightning quick out of the gate.  Also a son of Speightstown, Nashville had dropped more jaws than a mini skirt contest on Music Row.

The other four entrants in the gates were also far from chopped liver. Independence Hall had also been on the Kentucky Derby trail, Thousand Words had won the Shared Belief Stakes, Collusion Illusion was a Breeders Cup Sprint runner, and Express Train had been knocking heads in Stakes company all year.

Of course Nashville was considered the most dangerous runner, but was he ready to withstand the challenges of shipping West and facing grade 1 company for the first time?

“Charlatan has never faced a horse like Nashville,” said Bob Baffert in the days leading up to the Malibu. “But Nashville has never faced a horse like Charlatan either. It should be interesting.”

The gates opened and it was certainly interesting. As expected, a charged up Nashville bolted to the lead. With Charlatan just a length back, the opening fractions were Cheech and Chong like numbers. The opening quarter mile was a smoking 21.81 and the half-mile was a blazing 43.96.  These fractions were slightly slower than Nashville’s last race, so as the two heavy hitters turned for home question was could he maintain the pace under the pressure from a horse like Charlatan?

Under the brilliant booting of veteran jockey Mike Smith, Charlatan rolled right past Nashville as they straightened at the top of the lane. Leaving the front runner in some second hand smoke, the powerful stride of Charlatan allowed him to buzz right on by. In a matter of a few jumps the cream of this crop rose to the top. Leaving no question as to who was the best on this day, it was not if but by how much.

As Nashville dropped like a bottle of Jack Daniels in Hank Jr’s dressing room, the class of Charlatan was on full display.

“At the top of the stretch I knew I had plenty of horse under me,” says Smith of this his first ride aboard Charlatan. “The way he kicked by Nashville so quick was really amazing. That turn of foot was just incredible and proves he is an exceptional talent. I knew he was a good horse but I sure do think a lot more of him know.”

Smith is not alone in thinking highly of Charlatan after that magnificent Malibu. After clearing the frontrunner with ease and opening up by about 7 lengths, Smith geared this pulsating power down a bit as they rolled home. Winning by 4 ½ lengths, Baffert’s boy covered the 7 furlongs in 1:21.50.

As a lightly raced bolt of lightning, the natural question now is where does he strike next? Having already proven he can go two turns, the mile and an eighth Pegasus or mile and a quarter Saudi Cup might be next for this talented colt.

“He pulled up after the Malibu and was not even out of breath,” says Smith. “He showed me he wants to go longer.  Winning a race like the Malibu aboard a horse like him was fantastic and I am very thankful for the opportunity. I hope I get to stay on him.”